Review – Thom Scott-Phillips – Do Cultures Evolve?

Dr Thom Scott-Phillips joined us from Durham University where he investigates the origins and evolution of human communication, language and culture. He is familiar with the home of the EdSkeps, having completed his MSc, PhD, and post-doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh.

He gave us the background of his research, beginning in the 19th century when Darwin’s contemporary and fellow beard-grower Herbert Spencer coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest”. This term, through misunderstanding of its application to natural selection became misused and ultimately became associated with the eugenics movement, culminating in the atrocities of the early twentieth century – as unnatural a form of selection as history can provide. Derided as “Social Darwinism”, the description of societal changes (political, cultural or economic) in evolutionary terms fell out of fashion for a while.

Meanwhile, Gregor Mendel had laid the groundwork for genetics, which, when synthesised with Darwin’s ideas, resulted in theories of population genetics championed by men such as Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and John Haldane; this is now known as ‘neo-Darwinism’. On writing about these advances in the theories of genetics and evolution in The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins also applied the ideas more generally, coining the term ‘meme’ to describe a cultural or behavioural unit of information which can be passed on (or not); a form of ‘universal Darwinism’. (Darwin himself even applied his ideas to the spread and change of languages.)

As Dr Scott-Phillips told us, the meme of ‘memes’ had become quite successful, having gone viral on the internet; but instead of referring to any units of information or cultural traits, they now only refer to successful ones. Dawkins admitted that there are enough differences between genes and memes that the analogy might be rendered useless (memes can be on a continuous scale of variety rather than discrete units; their copies are imprecise; they are chosen rather than blindly selected), and moving away from the analogy frees researchers to study these variations in traits, or the reasons and methods in their selection, or the ways in which they can be passed along.

We were treated to videos of work done by Andrew Whiten on chimp cultures (demonstrating that they can teach each other distinct, different ways of acquiring food), and the results of applying biological evolutionary methods to the spread and change of Indo-European and Polynesian languages, just as Darwin had hoped.

Despite all this work, there is still no general ‘theory of cultural evolution’. Instead, Dan Sperber proposed ‘cultural attraction’ (rather than adaption or selection). Like a game of Chinese whispers, cultural traits can change in meaning and significance as they pass from one person’s mind to a public expression or utterance to another person’s mind. The ‘cultural attractors’ are the ones which are easier to remember, or which are more aesthetically or emotionally pleasing, such as the evolving faces of Mickey Mouse or teddy bears.

Experiments can demonstrate the gradual association of gibberish words with certain shapes and movements on a screen for no reason other than prior subjects making the initial link, and their associations presented to the next subject (who then reinforces the links); with enough subjects, the gibberish words can become the start of a formal, structured language. And any successful supernatural being must be ‘minimally counter-intuitive’ to survive; our gods must bear some relation to ourselves (as Dr Scott-Phillips quoted, if triangles had a god, he would have three sides).

Even if there are differences in the details, Darwin’s ideas can certainly be applied to the study of changes, whether in culture or in biological organisms. As for how our culture might evolve next, and how quickly, those were audience questions that had to remain unanswered.